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Your Guide To Buying A Sleeping Bag

by Carolyn Branco

Finding the right sleeping bag can be the difference between the perfect hike and a sleepless backpacking experience. There aren’t too many factors to consider when looking for the best sleeping bag for you, but that doesn’t make it choosing one any easier. That’s why we’ve compiled our simple but comprehensive sleeping bag buying guide, so spare five minutes reading it before going out to the wilderness.


Key Factors in Choosing The Right Sleeping Bag

Although sleeping bags have a lot of variations, types, and shapes, there are three key factors that make all the difference when purchasing your new sleeping bage:

  • Temperature rating - The most important specification a sleeping bag has, and the most difficult to determine since every person has a different cold tolerance.

  • Shape and type - What’s more important, to have a comfortable, sturdy, fluffy sleeping bag, or a bag that weighs as little as possible for long backpacking hikes.

  • Type of insulation material - There are two types of insulation materials, synthetic and down, each with its own list of pros and cons that we’ll list below in detail.


Sleeping Bag Temperature Rating

As we stated before, the most important feature of any sleeping bag is its temperature rating. The first rough filter should be the sleeping bag’s season rating, which is very straightforward and simple to understand.

Summer - Summer sleeping bags are ideal for temperatures of 35°F and higher. Summer sleeping bags are relatively lightweight (less insulation means less weight), and take almost no space in your backpack. They usually have a full length zipper which is great for hot summer days when you just want to spread your bag on the ground as a quilt. They are also the cheapest sleeping bags in the bunch.

Three Season - Three season sleeping bags are suitable for temperatures of 10°F to 35°F. They are ideal for spring and fall trips, but can sometimes be too warm for hot summer nights. Three season sleeping bags have additional features to help you deal with the cold, such as a draft collar and zipper draft tubes. They are not as heavy and cumbersome as winter sleeping bags, but not as light as summer bags.

Winter - Winter sleeping bags are designed to keep you warm and cosy at temperatures of 20°F and below. Don’t try to use them in warmer climates unless you want to have a sleepless and sweaty night experience. As with three season bags they have cold-resistant features, but are considerably heavier and bulkier.

About Sleeping Bags Temperatures Rating

Every sleeping bag has a temperature rating which indicates the minimum air temperature it's designed for. The problem is that currently there is no universal standard for sleeping bag temperature rating that is adopted by all the major manufacturers. This means that every manufacturer is free to mark their sleeping bag temperature rating, and while their claims are mostly realistic, too often they can be rather optimistic.

In recent years we witnessed nothing less than a revolution with sleeping bags temperatures rating with the new European Norm (EN) 13537 testing protocol.
EN has been adopted by most sleeping bag manufacturers for their 3-season backpacking bags. The EN system assigns sleeping bags three ratings:

  • Comfort Rating - This is the lowest temperature at which the average adult woman can expect to have a comfortable night's sleep.

  • Lower Limit Rating - This is the lowest temperature at which the average adult male can expect to have a comfortable night's sleep.

  • Extreme Rating - This is a survival only rating for the average adult woman. At this temperature there is a serious risk of hypothermia and other temperature related ailments such as frostbite.


Sleeping Bags Shapes

Rectangular - Most “simple” sleeping bags have a rectangular shape, which is the most comfortable and roomy. Rectangular sleeping bags with full-length zippers are ideal for opening up as a quilt, or a “double bed” that compiled from two sleeping bags for warm summer nights. They are less recommended for backpacking since they’re not very effective in retaining heat as semi-rectangular and mummy sleeping bags.

Mummy - Mummy sleeping bags are wider at the shoulders and narrower toward the toes, therefore they minimize the inner space of the sleeping bag for optimal heat retaining, and are also lighter and smaller to carry around. They’re considered less comfortable since you’re pretty much locked inside them, especially if you’re considered a restless sleeper.

Semi-Rectangular -These sleeping bags are, as the name implies, a hybrid of a rectangular and a mummy sleeping bag. We'll recommend them if you have a broad frame or are a restless sleeper. They’re not as lightweight and warm as mummy sleeping bags, but offer a more comfortable night’s sleep.


Sleeping Bags Insulation Types

As we mentioned before, there are two types of sleeping bags insulation, synthetic and down.

Down - Down filled bags are very light, warm and compressible, and when cared for correctly will last for many years. The loft (or fluffiness) of down creates thousands of tiny air pockets which means that down sleeping bags are very effective at trapping warm air and retaining heat. The disadvantage of down is that it easily absorbs moisture in damp weather and when it gets wet the feathers lose their fluffiness and the heat insulating properties are lost. Down sleeping bags also take much longer to dry out than synthetic bags. For these reasons down sleeping bags are well suited for cold but dry conditions To help alleviate the problem, some down sleeping bags has been treated to protect the feathers from moisture, but expect them to be very expensive.

Synthetic - Synthetic insulation is the most common type of insulation used in sleeping bags. A synthetic sleeping bag will be cheaper, easier to clean and require less care than a down sleeping bag. On the downside, synthetic sleeping bags are heavier and bulkier than a down equivalent.


Conclusion

Every good hiking day should end with a good night’s sleep. Choosing the right sleeping bag is essential for making the most from your outdoor activities. If you’re mostly doing short hikes and traveling with a car, you can enjoy a heavy and fluffy sleeping bag that’s a pleasure to sleep in, while not worrying too much about it's weight and size.
If you plan to go backpacking every other weekend on long hikes you should consider getting a more compact and warm mummy sleeping bag, which may be more expensive, but your back would thank you at the end of the day.